Senator Revels and General Tubman: A Tale of Two Titans

Hiram Revels

Hiram Revels (2019). Retrieved from https://www.proquest.com/other-sources/hiram-revels/docview/1959812534/se-2?accountid=131239

Prior to 1913, U.S. senators were elected by state legislatures. During Reconstruction, with the Republican Party in control of the Mississippi State Legislature in 1870, former U.S. Army chaplain Hiram R. Revels became the first Black man elected to Congress. Amazingly, since both U.S. Senate seats from Mississippi remained vacant during the Civil War, when Revels was seated in February 1870 he was the first Mississippi senator seated since former Confederate president Jefferson Davis. A February 24, 1870 New York Evangelist article rejoiced at the irony: 

Document Title: Jeff. Davis’s Successor in the Senate of the United States

Link: http://blackfreedom.proquest.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/revels3.pdf

Revels served a short, but distinguished, one year term in the Senate highlighting injustices against Black laborers and infrastructure investment in postwar Mississippi, and was one of two Black senators from Mississippi to serve in the Reconstruction-era Senate. However, after the 1870s there would not be another Black senator seated until Edward Brooke (R-MA) in 1967, and there were more Black senators elected during the Grant Administration (1869-1877) than during the Clinton Administration (1993-2001). 

Revels’s experience is symbolic of the Black Freedom struggle, described by historian Vincent Harding as “a river, sometimes running slow and narrow, at other times running swift and wide.” Though he soared to previously unimaginable heights for a Black man in America in 1870 by getting elected to the U.S. Senate, the progress for which he laid the groundwork was checked by systemic racism as it would be almost 100 years until another Black person was elected to the Senate.

Harriet Tubman

Daughters of the New Republic: Harriet Tubman and Sarah Bradford. Robertson, L. (Director). (2016, Jan 01). [Video/DVD] Retrieved from https://www.proquest.com/audio-video-works/daughters-new-republic-harriet-tubman-sarah/docview/1892343317/se-2?accountid=131239

Though Harriet Tubman is posthumously revered as a hero for leading raids to help enslaved people emancipate themselves, during her lifetime her achievements fell victim to the open white supremacy of the era. By 1874 Tubman was nearly broke after a decade of accumulating debts while not being given any compensation by the Federal Government for her service as Union scout and spy. In the first session of the 43rd Congress in 1874, House Republicans introduced H.R. 2711, a bill to pay Tubman $2,000 for her Union war service.

A June 22, 1874, House Committee on War Claims report sourced from ProQuest Congressional shows the official war correspondence Republicans on the committee cited to prove Tubman’s value to the Union military cause. Included is a February 19, 1863 order by Union Major General David Hunter providing Tubman with a permanent wartime pass on all Federal Government transports:

Document Description: House and Senate Reports: On Harriet Tubman’s activities as a scout and a spy.

Link: https://blackfreedom.proquest.com/harriet-tubman/

This order assisted Tubman in the June 1863 Combahee Ferry raid, where she guided a Black U.S. Army regiment to emancipate enslaved people in a mission that further proved correct the moniker “General Tubman,” a pre-war honorific bestowed by antislavery raider John Brown. These enslaved Black men and women of the South Carolina Lowcountry had already been made legally free by the Emancipation Proclamation issued earlier in the year, but were still being kept in captivity. Many of the men freed on the raid were recruited to serve in USCT (Black U.S. Army regiments) regiments afterwards, increasing Union Army manpower in South Carolina.

The evidence provided in the committee report speaks to the open racism of the time. The only official correspondence in support of Tubman available to cite was written by abolitionist military officers. The aforementioned David Hunter was seen as a renegade abolitionist, issuing General Orders No. 7 on April 13, 1862 which immediately freed all enslaved people at the fort his Union force had just captured as well as the surrounding island. Though rescinded, it was briefly the most radical emancipation order issued by the U.S. Army. 

A letter from Colonel James Montgomery stating that he found Tubman “valuable as a scout” was provided as evidence of her service in the report. Montgomery was an ardent abolitionist associated with slave revolt leader John Brown before the war. The only other correspondence was endorsements of these messages by Brigadier General Quincy Gillmore, who commanded Black soldiers in South Carolina, and Brigadier General Rufus Saxton, an anti-slavery Medal of Honor recipient. 

Surely it would have helped the committee’s case to have endorsements from some moderate or conservative military figures, many of whom also used Tubman’s services as a spy. However, it appears the only war correspondence praising Tubman available to the committee was written by abolitionists, so the opportunity to showcase bipartisan support was lost.

H.R. 2711, for the relief of Harriet Tubman, passed the Republican House later that year, but in a cruel twist the bill was defeated by a Republican Senate due to lack of documentation. The Union Army scout, nurse, and spy whose portrait may soon be on the $20 bill, could not even receive $2,000 compensation (roughly $45,891 today) from the Federal Government in 1874 for her heroic work.